It started with one… and then I saw the holes all over the garden.
You may or may not have heard of the Huntsman spider. Ask an Australian, and they’ll have a story about one of these massive hairy buggers. Generally, it involves discovering one in the most inopportune place.
The Huntsman, however, is actually a pretty chill house buddy. It may be too big to fit in that cup you want to trap it in – and will have you shrieking and pleading with it to not move as you approach holding, instead, a soup bowl – but they eat the other bugs in your house and don’t actually hurt you. When I find one in my house, I tend to give it a name (that I promptly forget), leave it, and not tell my partner it’s there.
What people may not have heard of is the bug that kills the Huntsman spider. You’d think these huge spiders would be the apex predators of the bug world. They’re not.
The Tarantula Hawk Wasp is.
I didn’t know about these bastards until recently. My partner, our new kitten Lillit, and me were in the back garden, letting Lillit have a bit of a frolic in this little piece of fenced-off outdoors. The kitten can’t get out, so we were having a chuckle while she played with leaves.
I was watching a Huntsman buddy creep along the fence. In my head, I named the Huntsman Francis. Francis was too high up for Lillit to get at it, so we were all good. My partner and I comfortably watched on as this bright orange and black bug flew into the garden.
A minute later we rather less comfortably watched the bright orange and black bug drag away a now very dead Francis.
‘The hell is that?’ I asked.
‘I donno…’ responded my partner. And then the bug dropped the Huntsman.
It dived after its pray in the same moment the kitten spotted it and went pouncing over. Like a moment of prescience, I sensed danger. But my “No!” and jump for the kitten was too late.
She got her paw on this Francis-murdering wasp, and the shrieking was unbelievable. This kitten can hit a solid wall head first and at full tilt and make not a peep. Her review of the Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s sting? 0/10 – Do Not Recommend. For a full ten minutes it was a scene of utter chaos as the kitten yowled, hissed, screamed, and shredded me to bits while I tried to have a look and my partner attempted to google what the hell had stung her.
The kitten’s paw was only twice its normal size for one night, and she stopped shrieking. Eventually. In our house, the Tarantula Hawk Wasp went on the “Don’t Touch That” list, and we thought that’d be the end of it.
A day later I was startled from my computer by the sounds of a scuffle from downstairs.
‘Take her!’ my partner, having ran up the stairs, said as he thrust Lillit into my hands.
My ‘What’s up?’ was answered by his declaration the Francis-murdering and kitten-stinging wasp was back, and he’d killed it.
‘Oh – don’t kill it…’ I complained, following him down with the kitten held securely in my arms.
‘It stings my kitten,’ he retorted, ‘I kill it.’
In fairness, the Tarantula Hawk Wasp was just defending itself. In another kind of fairness, I didn’t want it hanging around the garden any more than my partner did. I had wished it’d just piss off elsewhere, though.
According to my partner, the wasp had been outside by the back door, Lillit had once again (moronically) taken interest in it, and he’d sprayed the hell out of the wasp with bug spray. Me keeping the kitten away from the bug and the toxic spray, we approached to inspect the dead body of the wasp.
Except it wasn’t dead.
Bent over the wasp, we both jumped as, bright orange and black, the big creepy bug flipped back onto its legs, and shook out its wings. It scuttled. I squeaked and clutched Lillit tighter.
My partner grabbed up a heavy ornamental statue, and whacked it.
We looked again.
It straightened its legs back out, stood up –
It got back up again.
‘How the hell is it not dead yet?’ my partner demanded, as we both stared, pulling faces, at the half-smooshed bugger squirming back onto its feet.
It took two more whacks, and a good deal of creeped-out grinding into the ground, to finally kill the wasp. We get bush cockroaches around here that are hard to kill. This thing took “hard to kill” to a whole new level.
But, with the wasp finally dead and the bug spray cleaned up, we put the kitten down and breathed a sigh of relief.
For a little while.
I was in the garden a couple days later when I noticed a hole, about 3cm in diameter, in the dirt of the herb patch. It looked like someone had taken a bore to the ground, drilling a perfect circle right down. The more I looked, the more of these perfectly bored holes I spotted. Seemingly overnight, the garden was littered with them.
And then I saw the orange and black flight of the Tarantula Hawk Wasp. This time I wasn’t taking chances. I’d whipped the curious kitten up and hustled for the house within seconds. Through the glass of the closed sliding door, I watched the wasp land and scuttle its ominous body into one of the perfect bore holes. Dragging a dead Huntsman with it.
Nope. I consider myself pretty tolerant of spiders and the insects that are bizarre and wonderful on this continent. The spider-murdering wasp made me shudder. And there wasn’t only one. I spotted another through the glass, flying into my garden.
I didn’t open that sliding door for the rest of that day. Soundly locked inside the house with the kitten, I felt rather outnumbered by how many of those wasps were out there. And what creeped me out more: according to the internet, Tarantula Hawk Wasps use Huntsman spiders as hatchling food. They lay their eggs on the spiders, to ensure those babies get their first meal the moment they hatch.
A pest control person was my answer. I was not dealing with it myself. Not a chance. I got a pest inspection appointment for a couple weeks’ time.
For the next few days, we didn’t go into the back garden.
‘It’s probably because you killed that one,’ I said, half-jokingly, to my partner as we grimaced at the spider-killer wasp walking itself up the fly screen outside the sliding door. ‘You alerted the hoard.’
The wasp, with its bug eyes, creepy segmented legs, and folded orange wings, seemed to stare right back at us through the glass.
‘I fucking hope not,’ my partner muttered back. He glanced at me. ‘It’s probably because you encourage the spiders,’ he shot back. ‘It’s a buffet around here.’
I pulled a face. My partner squinted back at the wasp. Its legs snuck it a little higher up the fly screen.
‘Is it bigger than the other ones?’ I breathed. ‘It’s huge…’
‘… I don’t like it,’ was my partner’s belated response.
But the internet says Tarantula Hawk Wasps aren’t aggressive. They only sting if they’re provoked. And by the weekend, I couldn’t avoid the back garden any longer. We don’t have a clothes dryer, so that load of laundry had to go on the washing line.
The laundry basket on my hip, I surveyed the back garden through the glass sliding door. I saw no flying horrors, and had just about convinced myself the wasps were only out to get you if you whacked a paw on them. It was just nature. I’ve lived in this country for long enough that I know the danger of Aussie wildlife is over-sensationalised. Unless you’re really unlucky – or incautious – the only thing that’s actually going to attack you in the suburbs is a bull ant.
My shoulders squared, I rolled open the glass door. Heedless of my feet, the kitten was through the door in a flash. I’d been sure she was fast asleep upstairs, but apparently the call of the back deck was too strong for her. Already, she was gleefully attacking fallen leaves.
Burdened by the washing basket, I sighed, reminded myself it was just nature, and kept an eye on the kitten as I stepped onto the lawn beside the washing line. The big danger here, already proved to me, was Lillit pouncing on a wasp. So long as it was just leaves she was hunting, I’d grab her once I was done with hanging the washing.
I was about two thirds of the way through when I dropped a peg. I pegged half of the t-shirt, then bent down to snatch up the dropped one. I grabbed it, quickly, the rest of me freezing in pace.
Barely twenty centimetres from me was a damn Tarantula Hawk Wasp, dragging a massive dead Huntsman through the slightly overgrown lawn. I noticed it from the wiggling of the blades of grass first. Then I spotted the orange wings, the industrious thick body of the wasp, and the curled legs of the dead hairy spider.
A chill went down my spine. I spotted another one. This one also dragging a dead Huntsman, it a metre to the other side of me. And the kitten, having lost her leaf to the grass, came bounding over. She saw the wasp. Her eyes grew big, her ears pinned back, and her tiny fluffy body hunkered down for an attack.
Not daring to move my feet, I snatched her up, standing straight and holding her high above the horrid bugs.
‘No-no-no-no-no-no…’ I muttered to her, eyes peeled, as she fought and mewed for release. ‘Noo – baaaad idea…’ I hissed, sheltering her close to my body.
There were more. I was noticing wasp after wasp now. One not far behind me was dragging not a Huntsman, but the largest Funnel Web spider I’ve ever seen. And those Funnel Webs, shiny black with huge fangs, are the spiders that can actually kill you.
What’s more – they were all dragging them in the same direction: towards the brick side of my house, where Fred the Fern grew resiliently from the house’s concrete foundations. My toes curled. I had no idea how I’d managed to walk onto the grass without stepping on one of them. Right that moment, seeing two more wasps dragging huge dead spiders across the lawn, my bare feet felt terribly unprotected.
‘Awh… fuck…’ I breathed, the kitten now trying to bite at my hands to get free for some bug hunting. ‘Yeah – the answer’s no,’ I told her, ‘fuck no. You are insane!’
The more I looked, the more I saw. The grass around me was rustling in every direction with spider-killing wasp after spider-killing wasp, all dragging their prey toward Fred the Fern. And the fern itself wasn’t looking too good, I noticed. Usually green and lively, poor Fred’s fronds were curling on one side of the plant, browned and dying.
Lillit gave a disgruntled yowl. She shoved out, wanting to leap from my arms. I hung on to her little fluffy body.
‘Nope – nopedy-nope-nope,’ I whispered, in a freaked out calm, as her claws dug into my arm. ‘We are going…’ An ominous orange and black wasp was barely centimetres from my foot now, yanking the dead Funnel Web behind it. Without thinking to, I’d risen onto my tip-toes, my toes still tightly curled. ‘We’re going to go,’ I whispered on, finding a safe spot to plant my foot, ‘away…’
Two more safe spots found for my feet, and I was leaping onto the deck. The laundry could go to hell. I left it behind for the wasps and raced into the house, slamming the sliding door behind me.
I sent my partner out, in boots and long pants, to deal with the laundry. He didn’t appreciate it, coming racing back in with the clothes he’d grabbed and slamming the sliding door shut just like I had. I cuddled the kitten close as we both stood by the door.
‘I squished one,’ he said.
‘No!’ I cried. ‘That’ll just make them mad!’
‘Two came at me afterwards,’ he told me, giving me a huge-eyed look.
We both turned our stares back to the door. A Tarantula Hawk Wasp landed on the fly screen before us. Like some kind of security guard, it glared at us through the glass.
‘That’s so not cool,’ my partner breathed.
The wasp scuttled over to the edge of the sliding door. It’s antennae twitching, it seemed to investigate the jam.
We calmed down though. Somewhere through creating places in the house to hang the laundry inside, we managed to find the situation funny; jokes about city kids, whether to call in the Council of Dads, and being Millennials making us feel less besieged. We entertained the kitten with a feather instead of her preferred leaves, and decided it was probably just egg-laying season for the wasps, and we simply needed to keep out of the garden for a few weeks until all was sorted, one way or another.
That night was summer-in-Australia hot. We’d shut most of the windows, but left a few that were shielded by fly screens open to let in the breeze. I slept in underwear with only half a sheet over me. And I woke up, suddenly, to the most blinding pain on the inside of my thigh, and the feeling of scuttling legs on my skin.
I can join Lillit in her review: 0/10 – do NOT recommend being stung by these things.
I’d walloped the beast off my leg before I was even conscious. And then I yelled. I yelled loud enough to wake not only my partner and the kitten, but the entire street.
It was utter agony – the most exquisite pain imaginable. It felt like my thigh was on fire from a fucking blow torch.
This time it was me who beat the damn thing to death. I ripped the alarm clock, plug and all, out of the wall, and, bellowing with pain and rage, smashed the huge orange and black wasp with it the moment the wasp landed on the wall. The first blow had it falling, not dead, on top of the chest of drawers.
‘It wasn’t even ME who killed one of you!’ I screamed at the thing, and brought the alarm clock down on its scuttling body with an almighty SMASH. ‘I left you alone!’ SMASH! ‘Go fuck yourself!’ SMASH –
Two more smashes and the beast was finally dead, and so was the alarm clock. My eyes were pooled with tears, the pain making me bounce and shiver on the spot.
‘You fucking deserved it,’ I muttered to the flat husk of wasp on the dresser.
The internet says the pain only lasts about five minutes. Either the wasps that have invaded our back garden are special, or I beg to differ. Whimpering and sniffling, with an ice pack bandaged to my leg, I helped my partner scour the house for more of the blasted things and close up any gap we could see that would let them in. I was still crying an hour later.
There’d been only the one shithead wasp in the house that night. But it was enough to make me feel, in those dark hours, like our home wasn’t the safe haven it had been. Though my partner snored off into an early morning sleep, I sat awake, by the light of a torch, keeping an eye on the air around me and little Lillit. The wasp that had stung me had been about twice the size of the one that had stung her – a solid 6cm long at least. I had a genuine terror a bigger sting could kill the tiny kitten.
Between playing sentry, I googled. I learned a good deal about these wasps. That they’re not only endemic to Australia. They live on every continent. That their stinger can be nearly a centimetre long – though the same site also said these bugs, unlike the ones we were seeing, only grew to several centimetres long… That their burrows were built to create a safe haven for their young.
Not to my comfort, I also learned that the spiders weren’t dead. The Tarantula Hawk just paralyses them with their sting, and when the baby wasp hatches, it burrows into the spider and eats its least essential organs first, to keep it alive for fresher meat. I learned that spiders were only baby food. The adult wasp lives on nectar.
In the dark of night, it all sounded the worst horror story imaginable. I hid myself and the kitten under the bedcovers.
It was as the morning dawned that day that the scratching started. It wasn’t at any of the doors or windows, or even in the walls. The house is built on a concrete slab. Atop that are tiles, and atop that is a sound-muffling layer and the bamboo boards the previous owner had slapped, quick and dirty, over the tile. Both Lillit and I put our ears near the floor downstairs, and listened.
The scratching was coming from under the house.
Late to wake for work-from-home, my partner didn’t join us listening to the floor that morning. He did at lunchtime, however, all three of us with our ears to the living-cum-dining room floor. I can’t speak for the kitten, but my partner and I were thinking the same thing.
‘Do you reckon insurance will cover it if we burn the house down because of wasps?’ my partner asked.
‘If they don’t,’ I muttered, ‘they’re not human.’
It, and the jokes that followed about insurance companies, made us feel better. I don’t think I really believed, at that point, that there were wasps scratching the hell out of the foundations.
But the scratching didn’t stop. It got louder, and started to drive me nuts. Perhaps it was remembered pain rage fuelling me, or maybe just an instinct to defend home and kitten, but I geared myself up in workboots and all the protective clothing I could manage, shut Lillit in a room upstairs, and stepped into the back garden. I’d stuck a can of bug spray in one pocket, for whatever good that would do, had a thick-bottomed fry pan in one hand, and a pair of long barbecue tongs in the other to serve as the proverbial stick. The fry pan, I’d figured, would serve as the smashy-thing.
There was no mass movement of spider-paralysing wasps this morning. I closed the sliding door behind me, and stepped cautiously towards Fred the Fern. It was where I’d seen the wasps drag their prey, and it was where I’d figured a burrow under the house might be.
Through the now properly overgrown grass, I was pretty sure I could spot a hole. And it was a bigger hole than I’d been expecting. Jittering in my boots, I edged nearer, fry pan and tongs at the ready.
Like the world’s most shitty Gladiator, I gawped down at the hole, gripping my weapons. Trembling, I tugged poor Fred’s dying fronds back to get a better look.
The burrow was large enough I could fit down it. At the bottom was an unwelcome sight: I could see the part of the house you’re not supposed to, the concrete foundations bared from a hole that went right under them.
At the bottom were two Tarantula Hawks, dragging their spiders with them into the dark undersides of my house.
It was obvious why Fred was dying. The resilient fern’s roots were decimated for the sake of the hole. Keeping even my breathing silent, I crouched, pan ready, and carefully, carefully nudged some of the grass aside with the tongs so I could get a better look down under the house.
I had zero interest in leaning in too close, but from what I could see, the hole under the house went deep. I was also pretty damn sure that at least ten days ago there’d been no hole here at all.
We don’t get wombats in this area, but they are the only things I could think of that would make a burrow under your house this big. I tried, for a good moment, to make myself think we had a wombat – I’d prefer that. But I didn’t manage to fool myself.
And I definitely gave up on that train of thought when I felt something land on my arm.
The wasp was even larger than the one that had stung me. The size of a bloody coffee mug, it’s huge segmented legs scuttled itself over my two layers of jackets toward my elbow. I could see its triangular face perfectly. And I could see its huge sting.
I screeched. I whipped at it with the tongs, then went to town with the pan. I don’t even remember where I first hit the thing, but within moments I was beating it into the ground with a furore of someone possessed, my stung arm on fire.
My hair stuck to my sweaty face, I finally let up with the pan. I was breathing heavily and shaking, blinking hard to get the tears of agony out of my vision.
And then, in the newfound quiet, I heard something. Like someone crawling through the hole under my house. I stared down at the hole, sure, even before I’d seen anything, that my tongs and pan were very far from enough.
A hand, three-fingered and dirty, shot out from under the house. Then, beside it, there was a second hand, its skinny fingers curling into the dirt at the bottom of the hole.
The hands weren’t big enough to be an adults’. And when I saw the face, my first thought was a young child. But it was completely hairless, its eyes huge and protuberant, and as the head tilted up to look at me, they were black and weirdly iridescent.
A third hand appeared. Then a fourth. In an abrupt scuttle, the thing’s head was out of the hole, those shiny black eyes locked on me, and the tiny mouth grinned open.
From behind small teeth a tongue unfurled. Black as its eyes, it got longer and longer, pointing straight up at me, as four Tarantula Hawk Wasps leapt from the hole, orange wings whirring.
I unstuck my feet. I screamed. And I ran, fumbling with the sliding door and yelling for my partner. I slammed the door shut and he got beside me just in time to see the thing that had emerged before it scuttled back under the house. He also saw the three Tarantula Hawks that had attached themselves to my back.
We killed all three of them, but not without both of us getting stung. We closed up the entire house and let the crying kitten out of the room upstairs.
Now the three of us are sitting on the floor of the living room, my partner and I icing our huge swellings where we were stung.
And listening to the scraping going on below us.
I don’t normally write bug horror… However, I have a kitten who can, two times over, provide a review for the Tarantula Hawk Wasp. She is not a fan.